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heartbeat by Sharon Creech, 180 pp, RL 4

heartbeat by Sharon Creech is her second verse novel, coming after Love That Dog and before  Hate That Cat. Whereas Creech's other verse novels are about an exploration of the self through poetry, heartbeat is a book about the exploration of the self written in poetic form.

Creech tells the story of Annie's transitional twelfth year of life over the course of fifty-two poems. Her mother is pregnant and her grandfather, who lives with her family, is slowly losing his memory. Annie worries for her mother and the baby growing inside her - she calls it an alien baby and dreams that when  it is finally born they will find a rabbit, mouse or small horse instead of a human. She also worries about her ailing grandfather, looking up to him and taking care of him at the same time. Outside of her home, Annie struggles to maintain a friendship with Max, whom she has known all her life.  Max is determined and often angry, thinking that Annie is "spoiled" for having two parents and a grandfather in her life. Max and Annie run together, barefoot and free through the woods at the edge of town. Max joins the track team at school and pressures Annie to join to, as does the coach, but she knows that she doesn't want to be part of a herd racing for a finish line. She knows that she loves to run and she loves to run by herself.

The young adult novelist, Adèle Geras, captures the heart of heartbeat best with her review from The Guardian from 2004. I don't think I could find my own words here without echoing hers, so here they are, summing up the central theme of the book beautifully.

Annie's art teacher sets her class a project. They must each choose an apple and draw this piece of fruit every day for 100 days. The progress of the apple and what becomes of it is a metaphorical parallel for what is happening to Annie's grand-father. It also demonstrates, neatly and economically, the truth about life: that it passes, that every day is different, that you must notice things before they disappear, and so forth. The baby emerging into life is the beginning of a continuum that ends in death. Annie doesn't say this aloud, but it's there in the text for careful readers. The last drawing of the apple is one tiny seed: all that's left after it's been eaten.

Once again, Creech takes difficult familial and emotional situations and crafts them into a powerful, economical story. I'll end here with Annie's poem that comes near the end of the book:


                          Grandpa is lying on his bed
                          with the baby asleep on his chest
                          the two of them curled together

                          I lie beside them
                          sneaking one arm over them
                          making sure they are both breathing
                          thump-THUMP, thump-THUMP
                          and I feel infinitely happy
                          that this miracle baby
                          has come to us 
                          and infinitely
                          that my grandpa
                          does not have a whole
                          of him.


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